Low science scores should shock state at the center of technology universe


Remember the old song “The Sound of Silence” by Simon & Garfunkel from the ’60s? I thought about the song last week after the results of the NAEP science tests showed that California students were at or near the bottom in our nation in nearly every measure of performance in science. The lack of outrage from our leaders in Sacramento that greeted these depressing results made me “picture the sound of silence.”

Back when that song was topping the charts, you could still graduate from high school with the possibility of making a living for your family. Back then the wage difference between a college graduate and a high school graduate wasn’t so extreme. Even a high school dropout had the possibility of a decent life with a secure job and a house. Today, those pre-computer and cell phone days are as ancient history as the one-room schoolhouse. Today’s far more diverse California student population has to compete in a global economy that places a premium on math and science proficiency.

For the state that’s supposed to be the center of the technology universe, these results should be a shocking slap in the face. You’d think our state leaders would be calling for fundamental reformation of our education system. Yet, all you hear is the same old stuff we’ve been hearing for the past 30 years. “Just give us more money.”  “The kids and their parents are the problems and when we have more money, we can fix them.”

With all due respect, Sacramento leaders, don’t you think a state that pays its teachers the highest salaries in the nation should be getting some better results for all those dollars? For nearly $50 billion a year, shouldn’t we be able to satisfy the desire of the vast majority of our parents who want their kids to perform at grade level in English, math, and science based on the tests we give them? These are parents who aren’t worrying about “narrowing the curriculum and tying the hands  of teachers” but think it’s the job of schools to educate their kids well enough to get a great score on the SAT or ACT, graduate from high school, and not have to enroll in remedial math and English courses in college.

Thank you, Governor Brown, for recognizing in a recent speech that a quality education is the civil rights issue of our time. But what new strategies – beyond just increasing funding – will your administration support to ensure that every child has the right to quality education in California? In contrast, last week, I heard your fellow Democrat, the first African American President of the United States, Barack Obama, use clear language to define the education reform that taxpayers should expect for their hard earned dollars – from adding more math and science teachers to making fundamental changes in our teacher evaluation systems. He clearly talked about identifying and rewarding successful teachers and ensuring that no child has his or her civil right to a quality education violated by an ineffective teacher.

I heard a similar speech not so long ago from another Democrat, Antonio Villaraigosa – the mayor of our largest and most diverse city, Los Angeles. And recently, I heard another Mayor – Kevin Johnson, of the very city where you now make your home, talk about education reform in the same terms as our President.

As I listen to these leaders, I have hope for California. But I also know that California’s students cannot afford long-term hope. They need a Governor and legislative leadership who can stand side by side with our President on his education reform agenda. The danger of silence is irrelevancy – both nationally in upcoming debates on ESEA and locally for the millions of California students and their parents who want to hear how our leadership will fulfill the promise of an education system that actually prepares each student to succeed in college and career.

Arun Ramanathan is executive director of  The Education Trust—West, a statewide education advocacy organization. He has served as a district administrator, research director, teacher, paraprofessional and VISTA volunteer in California, New England and Appalachia. He has a doctorate in educational administration and policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His wife is a teacher and reading specialist and they have a child in preschool and another in a Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified.


  1. Thank you, Dr. Ramanathan.  I have the same feeling and I am tired of always hearing please for more money but never hearing what it is going to.  I was beginning to think everyone with even remotely associated with schoos had the same mantra of “we can’t teach properly until all social problems are fixed.”

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  2. This article is a bit dated, 2006, but it offer some anecdotal evidence  that the market for teachers was thriving.  At least those states/districts willing to pay more  were getting teachers and the other states/districts were losing out.
    Your own Manny Barbara can you give you some stories about suffering the “wrath” of Oregon as he was out competed for teachers.
    I support  efforts to reduce the impact of poor performing teachers, but on the whole I don’t see any reason to think we’re not getting what we pay for.  Can you convince me otherwise?

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  3. The total emphasis on only Language Arts and Math in K-8 in low income schools has come back to bite us. Elementary teachers have been complaining about a lack of time/support for both Science and the Arts. Full year Science in Middle School has been reduced to a single semester and the students are not coming in with the Science basics that they once had.  Teachers speak in whispers when planning lessons that may encroach on the total LA/Math curriculum. As the old saying goes, “You reap what you sow”.

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  4. It has been my experience in my district (where I teach and my kids attended) that science seems to only be taught the years it is tested.  I suspect this is true in many other districts as well.

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  5. What the non-educator public doesn’t know, or at least doesn’t understand, is the impact a decade’s worth of poor policy decisions at the state level has had on science education in our public schools. As we at CSTA (California Science Teachers Association) predicted would happen early-on, the results of those decisions have now come back to bite us. And who’s getting the blame, at least according to the author? Teachers, not the state policy-makers who put these policies in place.
    Let me enumerate. Our science standards were adopted in 1998, and there is nothing in California law that requires them ever to be reviewed and updated. (In fact, during his tenure, Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed at least two bills that would have required the review and revision, as necessary, of the science standards, something that would seem to be eminently sensible to most people.) The science standards themselves are extensive; indeed many argue they are too extensive, as they do not permit teaching any scientific concept in enough depth for true understanding. The standards appear as a list of facts to be memorized and able to be tested via multiple choice tests rather than concepts to be understood. The NAEP, on the other hand, includes expositive questions requiring analysis and description. So the first issue to explore in a discussion of why California students do poorly on the NAEP is the possible disconnect between our standards, which are now 13 years old, and what is tested on the NAEP and how it is tested.
    Although we have science standards for Kindergarten through grade 12, science is only tested in grades 5, 8, and 9-11. Science teaching at the elementary level is all but nonexistent, with many administrators directing teachers not to teach science, but to concentrate on math and reading. Even at the fifth grade level, where students are tested only on the fourth and fifth grade standards, the test counts for a paltry 6% of a school’s K-5 API (Academic Performance Index), whereas English language arts (ELA) counts for 56% and math for 38%. For a school administrator being held accountable for meeting performance goals, what, then, is the incentive to encourage teaching science at the elementary school level, particularly when pressure to increase ELA and math scores is as extreme as it has become?
    The standards are predicated upon the assumption that the scientific concepts taught at one grade level are built upon in subsequent grades, so that, for instance, when students enter sixth or seventh grade, the teacher should be able to assume that they will have at least been introduced to the information contained in the K-5 standards, if not having mastered them. However, if science is not taught until fourth grade, and then what is taught is only what will be on the fifth grade test, teachers in middle school have a larger job than just teaching what is contained in the grades 6-8 standards; they must provide remediation first. In addition, middle school (grades 6-8) science counts for only 7% of a district’s API, whereas ELA counts for 52% and math for 34%; again, what is the incentive for teaching science at the middle school level?
    Before pundits jump on the “blame-the-teacher” bandwagon, it would behoove them to take some time to understand how our policy leaders have devised a system that is out of whack with the rest of the nation. Perhaps we like it that way. And if we do, we should just stop obsessing over how we poorly we do on national and international tests as compared with the rest of the nation. If we don’t like it that way, then put the responsibility where it really belongs.

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